There's a lot of talk about “Up in the Air” being the movie of the year. It is being mentioned in connection with such great filmmakers as Frank Capra and Preston Sturges for its ability to blend humor and melancholy in a way that captures a specific moment in time. It is film worthy of such comparisons.
This is only director and co-writer Jason Reitman's third film, but in just three films, “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno” and now “Up in the Air,” he has revealed himself to be an assured, smart filmmaker. While all his films have received limited releases that went wider, make no mistake, these are polished, witty and intelligent mainstream films.
As was true with Capra and Sturges, Reitman works within well-known formulas, story arcs and character types, but within the familiar he explores ideas and emotions with an uncommon honesty. His films are stories of redemption or people seeing the error of their ways, but these well worn paths are walked in ways that are often unexpected.
The main character of “Up in the Air” is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who works for a company that sends out people like himself to fire people when their employer doesn't have the cojones to do it themselves. Given the state of our economy, business is good.
Ryan is also a motivational speaker who tries to convince people that living without the weight and baggage of a home and family is ideal. For Ryan putting down roots is death for a human being and so he keeps in the air for all but a few weeks of a year. His home is airports, airplanes and hotel rooms and he is perfectly happy that way.
His livelihood his threatened when his boss (Jason Bateman) takes a shine to an idea presented by a young new employee (Anna Kendrick), who says expenses can be cut if they fire people via video chat. Ryan is forced to take Natalie with him on the road (or rather the air) in an attempt to prove her wrong. While flying across the country Ryan meets Alex (Vera Fermiga, “The Departed”), a woman who appears to have his same view on life and that turns him on.
On the page Ryan doesn't seem like he should be a likable character. As an audience, we shouldn't like him and yet we do, and that is largely because he is embodied by Clooney, one of the few, perhaps the last, true movie star in the classic Hollywood sense. Like Cary Grant, James Stewart or Gary Cooper, he is able to play charismatic men with a sharp wit. Even when his characters aren't cut from an everyman cloth he still manages to exude the vibe of one.
This isn't only Clooney's show, he has strong support from his leading ladies.
Kendrick, whose biggest previous credit is a small role in the “Twilight” series, gives a breakout performance. She is perfect as a very particular kind of ambitious college grad who enters the work field with something to prove. Kendrick presents a confident facade that she knows better than her elders, but also shows in quiet facial expressions and small gestures that she fears she may not be able to walk what she talks.
Fermiga has an easygoing chemistry with Clooney and matches him on every level as they flirt and banter. Fermiga and Clooney are both playing adults, and what I mean is that it is rare that characters in mainstream films are written and allowed to be played as smart, well spoken adults. Even in the third act when their relationship seems to be heading to a conventional conclusion they are both allowed to stay human rather than gears in a plot.
With the exception of a few familiar faces, all the people fired in the film are real recently fired people. Reitman told them to treat the camera like the person who fired them and respond as they did or as they wished they had. This gives an emotional realness to these scenes with reactions that range from amusing to heartbreaking.
This is often a very funny film, certainly funnier than you'd expect a film about firing people would be, but given the subject it is inevitable that there is a sense of pain and tragedy. Reitman balances this material with a fine and compassionate touch that never laughs at the misery of others.